In brief:

During National Safe Work Month this October, Colin Biggers & Paisley's employment and safety team will be focusing on how employers and PCBUs can create and maintain safe workplaces. The theme of week 1 of National Safe Work Month is "working together to manage risks at work". In this article, we explore some of the basic concepts of workplace health and safety, and steps employers can take to improve workplace health and safety.

What duties do employers owe?

The Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (Cth) (Model Laws) imposes fundamental duties upon persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs) to manage work health and safety (WHS) risks. Many states and territories have since implemented legislation that reflects the duties under the Model Laws, whereas others have retained their own frameworks which are largely based on the same principles.

Fundamentally, under both federal and state legislation PCBUs have a primary duty to ensure the safety of workers, contractors and people who are present in the workplace. In order to fulfill this duty, PCBUs are required to provide, so far as is reasonably practicable, a workplace that is without risks to health and safety. 

How can employers provide a safe workplace?

In each state and territory codes of practice are implemented that provide guidance on safe work practices, and the minimum standards expected of PCBUs. PCBUs may need to create and adopt internal policies addressing processes, behavioural standards and expectations of the PCBU to demonstrate a strong intention to eliminate risks to health and safety in the workplace.

PCBUs should take steps to identify behaviours, processes or situations that could cause either physical or mental harm. PCBUs may wish to consult with workers and any health and safety representatives to ensure that they have effectively identified any potential hazards. PCBUs should then take steps to eliminate the potential hazard so far as reasonably practicable. If PCBUs are unable to completely eliminate the potential hazard, the PCBU should take steps to minimise any risks so far as is reasonably practicable. PCBUs are required to revisit and continuously engage with any potential workplace hazards beyond an initial risk assessment.

What are common WHS risks?

WHS risks vary depending on the respective workplace. The WHS risks that are present in professional office environments will be very different to the risks present in workplaces in an industrial setting. Broadly speaking, WHS risks can be either physical or psychosocial.

Common examples of physical WHS risks are:

  • Working at high levels of altitude;

  • Tripping on objects on the floor;

  • Lifting, handling and moving equipment; and

  • Hazardous materials.

Common examples of psychosocial WHS risks are:

  • Bullying;

  • Work-related stress; and

  • Job uncertainty.

PCBUs should be aware of both physical and psychosocial hazards when conducting risk assessments.

Minimising exposure and ensuring safety

To minimise exposure to risks and ensure a safe workplace, PCBUs can take the following actions:

  • Undertake a risk assessment for both physical and psychosocial risks;
  • Consult with workers to ensure that all potential risks are canvassed;
  • Eliminate the risks entirely, or if that is not possible reduce them so far as is reasonably practicable;
  • Monitor and review the risks frequently; and
  • Implement policies and procedures addressing risks in the workplace.

By proactively managing risks and taking necessary precautions PCBUs can ensure that they are providing a safe workplace for their workers and are meeting their statutory obligations.

This is commentary published by Colin Biggers & Paisley for general information purposes only. This should not be relied on as specific advice. You should seek your own legal and other advice for any question, or for any specific situation or proposal, before making any final decision. The content also is subject to change. A person listed may not be admitted as a lawyer in all States and Territories. © Colin Biggers & Paisley, Australia 2024.

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